Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols who directed the Manhattan Project operations at Oak Ridge wrote in 1986, “Oak Ridge was a city without a past, and it was not designed to have much of a future.” But Oak Ridge surpassed expectations to become a Cold War production center and leader in science and technology research. This spring, decisions on the fate of two significant Manhattan Project properties could determine Oak Ridge’s potential future as a center for heritage tourism in the 21st century.
The Department of Energy (DOE) is poised to decide whether to raze the entire historic K-25 plant or preserve a portion. At the same time, the historic Guest House or Alexander Inn (pictured on the right) is in jeopardy unless funding is obtained in the next several months.
With the designation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park likely in the next year or two, Oak Ridge will be in an excellent position to capitalize on its Manhattan Project heritage. Both the K-25 and Guest House will be considered contributing properties and eligible for Federal funds once the park is designated. The challenge is to preserve them now.
The K-25 plant pioneered the gaseous diffusion method for separating the isotopes of uranium. Secretary of War Henry Stimson remarked that K-25 was a masterpiece of technological genius. In 2010, the Department of Energy asked Degenkolb Engineers of San Francisco to analyze the feasibility of preserving a portion of the K-25 plant.
Degenkolb’s report submitted last December has four options. While the original plant consisted of 54 attached buildings, Scheme 1 would leave one entire building with eight cells of equipment at an estimated cost of $24.9 million. Scheme 2 would leave one-fourth of a building with two cells for $8.6 million. Including the “soft costs” of architectural fees and interior finishing, scheme 2 (pictured below)would cost about the same as demolition. The other two options would raze virtually the entire facility providing only an open-air shell with some equipment and plaques.
Only the first two options preserve this icon of American history in a way that is worthy of its significance. These options would give visitors a chance to experience the authentic four-story Manhattan Project facility with its first-of-a-kind equipment in place. They would contribute to Oak Ridge’s future as a destination for people interested in the Manhattan Project and Cold War history. Further, they are “revenue neutral,” costing no more than tearing them down.
The Guest House, designed by Stone & Webster, was where Secretary Stimson, General Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, James Conant and other dignitaries stayed when visiting during the Manhattan Project. Its 52 rooms were frequently filled with the lobby and dining room popular meeting places for the leaders of the Manhattan Project.
Once restored, the Guest House could become an attractive boutique hotel and interpretive center. Visitors could see one of the guest rooms, wander through the red-carpeted lobby and imagine the hubbub when production was at full throttle and 75,000 people were working in Oak Ridge. Situated just below the historic Chapel on the Hill and near Jackson Square, it has great potential to become a destination for Manhattan Project tourists. To lose it now would be a travesty.